“Arden? Arden, where are you?”
She was coming. Arden stopped sweeping and looked around in panic for a place to conceal himself. The only way out was the dead end of the boiler room. He filled his lungs with one last draw of clean, sweet air and slipped inside. Leefa would never follow him in. The smell of dragon shuffle was thick and cloying and rancid, and clung to the body for days. Since Arden was often tasked with shoveling it into the flames, and despite washing vigorously every night, a faint yet sickening perfume of it was ever with him.
Her voice had gotten louder. Praise be to Dagad on high, he had gotten inside none too soon. He breathed through his mouth and leaned to the peephole in the door to look out. She appeared just then at the far end of the corridor. Her head turned to the dragon exhibits and she wrinkled her nose. It wasn’t so much from the smell, which was greatly reduced from a recent cleaning, but the noise. Dragons screeched incessantly from sunrise to sunset. When people walked through the branches of the Odri royal perindens, they cried out and chattered in excitement at the wildcats and birds, the bears and snakes. But at the dragons, they could only communicate with nods and hand signals. The noise was overwhelming.
He made the mistake of inhaling through his nose. His stomach overturned, as it always did, and then calmed down. It had gotten acquainted with that smell over the last seven years of working in the perindens, and the overturning was perfunctory now.
Leefa craned her neck to hunt for him in the exhibits, her kerchief pressed to her breasts. She had come to the perindens directly from the kitchen. Her apron was gone, but she had forgotten to take off her hairnet. It encircled the knot of her bun like the glossy strands of a spider’s web. He had never seen it in her hair outside of the kitchen because she loathed wearing it, and it was the first thing she stripped from herself when the day’s work was done. For it to be there outside the kitchen indicated she was in possession of news so thrilling that it had swept her thoughts clean of her deep and abiding grudge at anything which muted her golden tresses.
Arden was twenty years old. He was a man, a grown man of six feet tall, and the hard work of the perindens had layered muscle upon him. He was intelligent, and educated in reading, writing, and the basics of figuring. That was more than many men throughout Odri. Yet he was still hiding. Hiding like the child he had once been in the Lighmoon orphanage, folded up in a closet and muffling his giggles as footsteps raced back and forth in the hallway, and as he had hidden as a toddler behind his mother’s skirts while she pretended to search for him. He was too old to be hiding now, far too old, yet he was. It shamed him.
Hours of tending the animals had left him famished for human company, but the only person that wanted to speak to him was the very last one he wanted to see. Pacing from the water dragons to the tree dragons, the large to the small, Leefa’s narrowing blue eyes pierced through the exhibits. He was often in there to clean the shuffle, or up on a ladder in the fire-proof netting to free the dragons that flew into it and got stuck. They were miserably stupid creatures, and it was an exercise in futility to determine exactly which breed was the most brainless of the bunch. The little blue Hav dragons, the almost translucent shimmer dragons from the shore, the grubby mud dragons that splashed about in dirty puddles all day and dripped muck as they flew . . . Rarely a week passed when he wasn’t climbing up to the netting as one dragon or another screeched at him for help. Usually more than one.
Now she was nearing the boiler room. He stood very still and tried to quiet his mind, afraid that his thoughts might somehow be loud enough to give him away. Leefa had set her cap for the prince’s driver from winter to spring, and Kolfax had had to scream in her face like a madman to get her to leave him alone. Love notes pressed daily into his hand, a shadow ever on his heels, angry confrontations about what other woman was charming him away, she would not accept no. Several men in the palace told similar stories of relentless pursuit over the two years Leefa had worked in the kitchen, bachelors and widowers and even a man in a floundering marriage. Several women had received the sharp side of Leefa’s tongue when she imagined that they were interfering with her and her true love. If this carried on much longer, she was going to end up dismissed from her position. Behind her back, people called her touched in the head.
Once Leefa dug her claws in, she refused to let go except under extreme duress. And now in late summer, her claws were in Arden. There was cold deliberation in the objects of her attractions. Her seventh lead kitchen assist was an ignominious position. She was relegated to washing pots and peeling apples, and the highest she was likely to go was fifth lead. Unless she married, and married well, she would dwell forever in the maidens’ room within the palace, a space shared with a dozen women, and sleep on a cot. Her parents had died of the same illness that orphaned Arden and she had no home but the maidens’ room; the only inheritance left to her was her good looks. She aimed only for men who could lift her circumstances. But she did not know how to subtly convey her interest. She dropped on a man with the force of a dead-winter ice storm, flattened him like a Lorial steam train, giggled and babbled and petted and shouted and pressed about marriage until he fled for dear life. There were many unmarried women in the palace, women who did not have such glorious looks but had steady minds and spirits, and Leefa’s antics made them more and more attractive all the time.
She went to the last dragon exhibit and looked in. Her mouth opened in a silent cry of Arden, the dragons drowning out her voice. Then she looked straight at the boiler room and he froze, fancying that she could see through the peephole to his unblinking eye. Suddenly, her hand snapped up to her hair. She pulled out the hairnet, horrified at her oversight, and arranged her hair so that one long lock fell into her cleavage.
The first two times that she had appeared at Arden’s hut for a visit, she rearranged the furniture to suit herself. The third time, she brought curtains for the living room. Arden hadn’t known what to do but allow her to put them up, and unless he ripped them from the rods and did as Kolfax had, screamed in her face like a madman, she was going to do it regardless of his opinion.
He had wrestled bears three times his size. He had fought mad cats and been tossed off the back of a flying dragon. He had no fear of talons or claws, venom or fire. But he had not the faintest idea about how to deal with this touched-in-the-head girl.
When her hair was done to her satisfaction, she pivoted on her heel and went back through the dragons as they screeched and screamed, chattered and smoked. At the end, she wavered between directions and then went to the cats. He had hidden in there last time. The open-air corridors of the royal perindens bloomed outward from the main passage like the curving branches of a great tree, and offered infinite places to avoid being seen. Behind the wildcat exhibit, deep in the trees with the apes, once he had even taken shelter in the tropical fronds while Isle Zayre birds sang overhead and blue frogs leaped over his drawn-up legs.
Now he was stuck in the boiler room, because when she doubled back through the perindens to leave, he would be plainly visible in the dragon corridor. Well, he was supposed to shovel the shuffle into the flames anyway today. He left the peephole to get started. It was a fifth lead job, but lazy little Mavic was so sickened by the smell that he vomited at every exposure and practically crawled away. And rather than dismissing him from the position and finding a replacement, Tolaman just reassigned the work to Arden.
The dragon shuffle sizzled as it hit the flames, and the smell became even more noxious. Hiding from Leefa had to stop. He would gather his courage and tell her what he had told her last time. He was very flattered and she was a lovely girl, but it was never going to happen. Ever. His inclinations were to men and always had been. He wished her well and hoped they could stay friends. This time, he would say all of those things a little louder to make her hear.
And then she would bring over more curtains for the bedroom and ask why he had put the chair back against the wall when she liked it in front of the hearth. The first time he had told her that he preferred men, she’d only redoubled her efforts to enchant. Lowering her blouse further and tossing around her hair more was not going to change his inclinations, but that was not convenient to her, so she paid no attention to it. It gave him nightmares of waking up with her beside him in bed, a ring locked around his finger and the wedding having happened with someone standing in as a proxy for him.
He shoveled fast from his frustration, turned down the flames and scraped out the hardened black gems to go to the doctor for his healing magic. Arden didn’t realize his error until the work was done and he was washing off at the sink. She could be anywhere in the perindens now, if she was still searching, and he had to get all the way over to the horses to perform his next tasks. There was no way to get to the pasture by side routes.
No. He wasn’t going to slink around anymore. The royal perindens belonged to King Heros of Odri, but Arden felt a sense of ownership that came from minding them day and night over a long period of time. His hands picked the pebbles from the horses’ hooves and cleaned the dragons’ scales; there was no cat in the exhibits whose genealogy he could not trace back for five generations, or system of pipes in the squelly pools that he had not seen up close and personal. He knew that not only did dragons screech all day long, at birds and leaves and rain, at each other and nothing at all, but also that they were noisy and restless in their sleep. Often they unconsciously knocked each other out of the trees to make more room for themselves. Then fights began, and everyone woke up to screech and flap and attack each other. Even in his hut, Arden could hear it. Every breed, every land of origin, every quirk of personality, every preference of meal and habitat was neatly catalogued in his head. Tolaman had been born to his role yet not mastered half as much.
So these were his grounds, partly, and Arden wasn’t going to cringe through them. With a confident stride, he left the boiler room. Most of the dragons flapped their wings happily to see him. He had a penchant for animals. It had been present but weak at thirteen when he was plucked from the orphanage for his ability, and by twenty, he could command their minds for brief periods of time. To have a penchant of any kind was uncommon. Tolaman, Mavic, and the rest of the perindens staff were without them. They were jealous of Arden’s skill, and they would never know that he would gladly trade it away if it meant that they would be friends with him. Animals provided his company, but dear Dagad, the evening that Kolfax and Arigatta had dealt him in on a card game, the party that had seen him in a mix of squires throwing rings, beautiful Etto . . . those times burned more brightly in his mind than any nudge from a pony or lick of gratitude from a freed blue Hav. He was a very lonely man.
As Arden passed by the Lorial dragon, it eliminated a mountain of shuffle right by the internal door. Whoever entered the enclosure next would smear it everywhere, which was exactly why the dragon had chosen that place to do it. His muscles squeezed for another burst and Arden pushed into his mind. Go away. Obediently, the dragon moved off to finish the expulsion somewhere else.
Getting to the main passage, Arden looked up and down it. No visitors aside from those who lived on the palace grounds were admitted to the royal perindens on Sixday or Sevenday, and as it was Sixday, foot traffic was almost nonexistent. The two children of the royal doctor were running at top speed down the passage, neither taking any notice of Arden as they flashed past to wheel around the branch that led to the serpent house. They visited the snakes on a daily basis, having made a game of who could remember the most about each type.
He headed for the corridor that would deliver him to the pasture. The floor out here had to be swept, another fifth lead task that Mavic shirked and Tolaman would reassign to Arden. The pampered son of a wealthy merchant who traded in the animals of Odri, Loria, and Havanath, Mavic could afford to be useless. If he lost his place, he’d go home to every comfort in the world.
“Arden! There you are!”
He turned with a tight smile. Picking up her skirts, Leefa hurried to join him. “I’ve been looking everywhere for you! Where did you get to, my silly boy?”
“I had to burn the dragon shuffle,” Arden said, which stopped her neatly from throwing her arms around his neck. “What brings you here? Shouldn’t you be in the kitchen?”
“We were dismissed to the courtyard to hear the Master-at-Arms give an address! Something has been going on for days on the third floor.” It was the polite way to refer to the internal affairs of the royal family, who maintained their living quarters on both wings of that floor in the palace. Curling a lock of hair around her finger coyly, Leefa lowered her voice though no one was around. “No one knows what it is but that’s what it has to be. There must be another bun in the oven of the foreigner. Come! We might have missed the announcement!” She weaved her arm through his and they walked down the passageway to the exit. The wife of Prince Reynar was from Isle Zayre, and the two of them were so fertile that five years of marriage had seen four births. It would have been five for five had she not miscarried the last.
From the royal perindens they passed to the garden. No gardeners were around. There was no one at all strolling the paths, sitting on the benches, or bending to admire the flowers. The only sign of life was a tumult of voices coming over the tall hedges from the courtyard.
Despite his odor, Leefa snuggled in closer to him. “But what I can’t understand is why the Master-at-Arms is giving the announcement when that is the role of the king’s man. What do you think?”
“I think we will know soon enough,” Arden said.
“Another baby! I just love those fat arms reaching out.” Leefa sighed wistfully. “We would have a darling baby. A little boy to ride about on your shoulders, a girl . . .”
They entered the courtyard through the archway and he stopped listening to her from his surprise. This was a much bigger crowd than there had been in previous announcements. The entire populace of the palace serving staff was milling around the cobbles. Tolaman’s narrow-lipped wife was sitting on the rim of the fountain and chatting to a first floor maid. Mavic was in a group of younger servants, all engaged in flicking pennies up into the air and catching them. Footmen and butlers, cooks and carriage drivers, nannies and tutors and laundresses, everyone was here down to the children who were too young to work.
Even Etto, who had stolen Arden’s heart a year ago and put it in his pocket with a dozen others to beat for him. The man took hearts because he had none to call his own, and Arden’s infatuation had passed. But for that brief time that Arden had called him his . . . those days where he heard his name being called in the perindens and literally trembled with happiness to look up . . . When he unbuckled his belt at night, he always remembered the one night when Etto’s hands had done the unbuckling. And then the bed had been warm on Etto’s side in the morning, thrilling Arden to imagine the warmth going on and on forever, and cold every morning since then. Etto was charming a groom now, both leaning against the hedge and chuckling in the way of new secrets held between them. Firmly under Etto’s spell, the groom looked at him adoringly. Perhaps he wasn’t aware that Etto never visited the same well for a drink twice. Or he was aware but just didn’t care.
Heads turned when the door to the armory opened, but the Master-at-Arms was not among the soldiers to file out. The king’s man Pietru did, however, and snapped at the penny-flickers to comport themselves. Bright copper coins tumbled down through the air and vanished into pockets. Then the king’s man stood with the soldiers and waited, all of them silent and with their backs ramrod straight.
Leefa pulled Arden over to a group of her friends from the kitchen and garden. Carmel looked at her arm through Arden’s with jealousy. Bewitched by her, he was a handsome but low-ranking garden lead who wouldn’t ever catch her eye. She was determined to move up in this world, and Carmel wasn’t going to attain any height except by the lightning bolt of luck. The prime positions were taken, and he would be raking leaves to infinity. Arden wouldn’t move up to first lead unless Tolaman died, and as he was in good health and barely thirty years of age, it was unlikely to happen. Also, he would name someone else as his successor purely out of spite. To be shown up for his lack of a penchant grated on him keenly, and had since the very first day Arden was brought to the perindens.
“She can’t be,” Taliss was saying to Leefa. The two of them adored the river of endless gossip to sweep through the palace. “I had it from the laundresses themselves. The monthly sheets haven’t changed and-” Carmel flushed as he put together what Taliss was talking about. “-Dorka had it from the nurse’s assistant. The doctor would have been called to her quarters, and the astrologer, and every time she took to bed for months. But she hasn’t retired, so-”
“I saw her just last Fourday,” piped up a new nanny’s helper. “She wouldn’t have been rolling around the floor like that after her babies had she another one coming along inside. This has something to do with Princess Briala.” Leefa and Taliss dismissed her as being young and foolish, and not a resident of the palace long enough to know anything they didn’t.
Throwing Arden a sympathetic look, Kolfax cut through people to move farther away from Leefa. In retaliation for spurning her advances, she had informed everyone that she had spurned him because he had oozing black-spot on his manhood. There was nothing that Kolfax could do to prove her wrong unless he planned to stand on the fountain’s rim and lower his trousers in front of the entire staff. Then he would be vindicated, but also unemployed.
They continued to wait for the Master-at-Arms. Pennies reappeared and more people sat upon the fountain’s edge. The light purple sky was strewn with clouds, a pretty sight that many were pointing out, but Arden’s eyes were caught on two of the prince’s gentlemen who were walking in circles around the fountain. Long they had been a couple, and now between them was a dark-haired little girl of four. She was an orphaned niece that they had taken in three years ago, and their faces were alight upon her as she cried, “More, Da! More, Pa!” They lifted her little hands in their big ones and she squealed to come off the ground and swing.
Arden turned away from their happy family in sadness and half-attended to the conversations around him. Gossip about a groom who had behaved so shoddily that he was dismissed just last week . . . a maid who had gotten herself into trouble and fingered the married milkman as responsible . . . the mystery of the stolen statue from the third floor drawing room . . . a handsome man who worked in the perindens and refused to propose to his beautiful girl . . . Arden came back to himself hurriedly as everyone laughed at him. Leefa squeezed his arm and said ruefully to her friends, “I’m still waiting!”
Dagad forgive him, he was going to have to scream in her face like a madman. He had few memories of his mother, and none concerning her opinion on how to handle a pushy girl, but he trusted that she would have given him good advice. He just couldn’t figure out what it was. But she never would have told him to scream in the girl’s face. Of this he was certain.
He was saved from more comments, queries, and embarrassment when the Master-at-Arms appeared from the armory door and held up his hand for silence. It spread like ripples out from his raised hand, shushes relaying through the courtyard until the only sound was a penny striking the cobbles, and the king’s man delivering a swift clip to the back of Mavic’s head. Then total silence fell.
The Master-at-Arms was an imposing figure. The most squirrely, half-witted squires and soldiers straightened their spines in his presence; the man dealt with nonsense harshly. His graying hair cropped closely to his scalp, scars ran down his thick arms from repeat altercations with blades. Despite all of this, he had a very soft voice. Even when he was counting out lash marks, he sounded like he was reciting the dreamy words of a lullaby.
His voice didn’t carry through the courtyard, but the gasps and cries told Arden all that he needed to know. The fresh-faced young nanny’s helper was proven right that it had to do with Princess Briala. She was missing. The last time she had been seen was the evening on Twoday, when she retired to her bedchambers with a severe headache and ordered her staff not to bother her for any reason. Her headaches had grown so overwhelming over the last year that she stayed in total darkness and could not tolerate company or even food for days. For much of the time, she slept under medication given to her by the doctor.
Thus, when her bell for meals did not chime on Threeday and Fourday, no one in the kitchen thought anything of it. She was asleep. If she woke up between the doses of medication she gave herself and was able to tolerate a little food, she had a bowl of fruit in her room. It was only yesterday that her absence began to feel overlong, and her high maid went to investigate at the queen’s behest. The bedroom was empty, as was the study. She wasn’t visiting her nieces and nephews, nor was she in the apothecary with the doctor. She wasn’t anywhere.
Coming to the fountain and stepping up to the rim, the Master-at-Arms’s voice carried further. “Those of you who have known Princess Briala since childhood are well aware that she has a love of the practical joke. It is highly probable that she is still on the palace grounds, but she could be concealed with a holographie crystal. It creates a modest projection-”
Insulted at this suggestion, Leefa hissed to Arden, “A practical joke? She is a month away from her marriage! Can you imagine this?”
Arden didn’t respond. Why would he have imagined this? Heads of older people shook around the courtyard and whispers rose of the gracious young woman that the princess had become. What was in character for her at the age of eight was out-of-step for almost twenty. Besides, Prince Reynar had usually been the instigator of those practical jokes and roped in all three of his little sisters for the ride. Beautiful Seeta was gone to Loria, married to the prince second in line to the throne, brave Zalai was performing her service to the Crown by managing the wild people of the southwestern coast, and clever Briala was betrothed to the youngest son of the Isle Zayre royal family. Childhood was behind them one and all, and it had been for some time.
Nodding to the first leads scattered through the throngs, the Master-at-Arms said, “All of you are to have your people search your area of the palace and grounds thoroughly. Leave no stone unturned and be very attentive to any young woman who appears to be out of place. The holographie crystal cannot change her into a man; it cannot add or subtract from her age. But it can lighten or darken her skin, shorten or lengthen her hair, twist her form and features into those of a stranger’s. It can even change her clothes. She could be among you now.” Everybody looked at his or her immediate neighbors in suspicion. Several pairs of eyes alighted on the new nanny’s helper, who protested that her identity could be accounted for by multiple personages both within the palace and former places of employment outside it.
“Could the princess have been kidnapped?” someone called out.
“Our investigation has concluded that she was not taken against her will from the palace,” the Master-at-Arms said. “There have been no threats against her as of late. Her room is far too high for someone to slip through the window. There is no evidence that anyone tried. Nothing in her room was stolen or disturbed. No, she is here.”
His eyes slid to the crowd of people that had Arden in its mix, and lingered on a whispering man and woman. “We will locate her soon, and I would hate to hear tales of this carried out of the palace gates. Oh, I would hate to hear that.” His fingers flexed. The out-of-place lullaby voice was somehow more frightening than the booming baritone the man should have had. Arden had never crossed the man, and stayed at a distance in the rare times the fellow came to the perindens. The couple stopped whispering and looked nervous.